I have watched scores of National Geographic specials and the ones that intrigue me the most were the river explorations. My adventurous side longed to join such a trip but the sybaritic side wanted the adventure to include excellent accommodations, great food, personal service, and no stress. My voyage on the RV Mekong Pandaw from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Saigon, Vietnam was all of that – a luxurious river adventure on the world’s 12th longest river.
There is something about cruising slowly along a river watching the daily life of the people that I find fascinating. To me it is like a window into their life as I pass by without disturbing their routine. They may be fishing, bathing, gathering water, or farming along the banks of the river. The routine life goes on undisturbed by me – I like that.
The voyage started in Phnom Penh located on the Tonle Sap, a waterway that drains into the Mekong River, and then continued on the Mekong River; and, I did it on a beautifully crafted luxury vessel that was built to reflect the traditional teak and brass vessels of the colonial era.
Most of the passengers boarded in Siem Reap, home to the amazing ruins of Angkor Wat. I visited Angkor Wat three years ago so I opted to board in Phnom Penh. By the way, visas are available upon arrival. While most of the guests toured Phnom Penh visiting the Silver Pagoda on the grounds of the Royal Palace, the National Museum, and the Killing Fields, I checked into my cabin and explored the four levels of the vessel. All cabins are roomy with lots of easily accessible storage space, a desk, and a bathroom with a shower that was bigger than typical on a cruise ship. I especially loved the chairs and table outside my room on a promenade deck. I spent hours there watching life on the river. It never got boring. I started exploring at the top on the Sun Deck which had a panoramic view. There was a hospitality bar next to where the evening cultural shows were held. The Upper Deck had some accommodations and an enclosed, air-conditioned Saloon Bar. It was plush but I don’t think anyone on our trip used it because the weather was too wonderful to be inside. There were more cabins on the main deck along with the air-conditioned dining room where the chef served gourmet meals and dinner was a white-tablecloth affair. They had something to please all palates but also some unusual items like the excellent wild boar I enjoyed the first day. The lowest deck, the Spa Deck, had a full-service spa where I relaxed with a foot reflexology treatment. There is also a gym with cardio machines and weights plus a relaxation area with reading material, a fair trade shop and a movie theater.
Crossing the border from Cambodia to Vietnam was a non-event. We stayed on board while the staff took care of all the formalities. While we were waiting one of the chefs showed us how to make spring rolls then demonstrated his skill at fruit carving.
The shore trips were varied and included in the price. Nice touch. Our first excursion in Vietnam was to Chau Doc town where we visited an Islamic Cham fishing village where some of the families lived in stilt houses designed to accommodate the seasonal rise and fall of the river. Our visit did not seem to interfere with their usual activities. There was group of men playing marbles, a young lady weaving, and another was cooking soup. On the way back to the “mother ship” we stopped at a floating fish farm.
That evening we watched the French movie “The Lover” – very adult – in the ship’s movie theater. It is based on the autobiographical novel by Marguerite Duras about a young French girl who falls in love with a Chinese man in Vietnam during the 1920s. The next morning our shore trip included a walk past the colorful and vibrant wet market to the house featured in the movie. The house is nearly 125 years old with a large ancestral altar and period furnishings. It was an interesting contrast between the wooden stilt house we visited the day before. People who were seeing a wet market for the first time were fascinated by the variety of goods for sale including fresh fish, meat, an amazing variety of vegetables and fruits plus many other things including nice plump ready-to-cook rats.
One afternoon we boarded a local tour boat for a ride past the floating market but most of the vending boats had gone as the market is mainly a morning activity. We continued on to a small village where there were many cottage industries. We watched them make a variety of sweets, popped rice, and rice paper at the end of the visit we enjoyed samples of the various sweets. There was also snake wine which some of the more adventurous tried. A large venomous snake is placed in a large glass jar of rice wine, some jars had other smaller snakes in it, and left to sit for many months. The wine is said to cure just about everything from eyesight to hair loss but is usually promoted as a way to improve health and virility.
On our last evening we were treated to an onboard Vietnamese cultural show which evolved to include modern music with the guests encouraged to join in. There were many things I loved about the cruise: the small number of passengers, the shore trips were included and so were the adult beverages and gratuities, the crew provided excellent service including cleaning our shoes after a shore trip, Internet was available, and access from ship to shore was easy – no steep banks to climb.
The only thing I regret is that I didn’t board in Siem Reap for the whole trip. Even though I had been to Siem Reap before the experiences described by the other passengers sounded unique and wonderful.
For more information on the many cruises offered by Pandaw in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and India log on to www.pandaw.com or call 1-800-729-2651 toll free from North America.
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